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Mark: A Contest of Understanding

February 26, 2008

I love the Gospel of Mark because it suggests that we are incapable of understanding Jesus. Even if we were capable, we aren’t allowed access to this privileged understanding. The entire Gospel poses the existence and message of Jesus as a mystery that one should not grasp, as Robert Frost understands:

I have kept hidden at the instep arch
Of an old cedar at the waterside
A broken drinking goblet like the Grail
Under a spell so the wrong ones can’t find it,
So can’t get saved, as Saint Mark says they mustn’t

What’s so interesting about this section of Frost’s poem is that it implies that there are people who should understand Jesus and other people who should not. These are “the wrong ones.” This dichotomy, between right and wrong, between those on the inside and those on the outside, or between those who get it and those who don’t, informs the interpretative challenge of Mark, and (I think) of Jesus.

Jesus poses the question famously in Mark, after the disciples inquire about the purpose of the parables:

To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside, everything comes in parables; in order that ‘they may indeed look, but not perceive, and may indeed listen, but not understand; so that they may not turn again and be forgiven.’ (my emphasis)

Of course, Mark is quoting from Isaiah here, and the passage is wrested from its OT context and given a new meaning: the expressed purpose of the parables is to divide those on the inside from those on the outside. Jesus conceals the Kingdom of God in parables to purposefully obscure its meaning and keep those who do not understand on the outside. Most people don’t like to think that Jesus delivered his message via the parable in order to be confusing and divisive. The author of Matthew was probably one of them, and when he wrote his gospel, he changed Jesus’ phrase, “in order that” to “because,” which implies that the parables are a concession on Jesus’ part, an aide to help more people understand the message of his Kingdom.

Yet, as Mark makes clear, those who do not understand are (primarily) his disciples. In John, it’s “the Jews” who are painful literalizers and just don’t get it, but in Mark, the very people one would expect to understand the message of the Kingdom of God are mystified, deliberately kept on the outside by Jesus’ abstruse parables.

As the sermon in our church this past week wonderfully demonstrated, one of the few people in Mark who does get it, who is on the “inside” is the woman in Chapter 7, who verbally bests Jesus in an argument and (perhaps) causes Jesus to change his mind about who is “inside” and who is “outside.”

Mark is great because it is a contest of understanding. It presents the act of following Jesus as an intellectual challenge, and in many ways, a Sisyphean task that ultimately will end in futility. Rich Mullins understood this when he suggested that Jesus is “just plain hard to get.”


From → The Bible

  1. Steph permalink

    I disagree with you that Mark, and the gospel of Christ is a “contest in understanding”. Although it is, “hard to get”, and I think it is intentionally confusing, the beauty of the gospel is that you can not reason your way to understanding. No amount of intellectual savvy will lead to “getting” the message of Christ. The only way of coming to the father, is by Jesus revealing the truths of the gospel. As Matt. 11:25 says, God has “hidden these things from the wise and learned and revealed them to the little children”. The gospel of Mark may be more “hidden” than the more simply composed Matthew, however the understanding of it still requires revelation from Christ.

    This concept is one of the dominant themes of Anna Karenina. Levin, one of the main characters of the book supposedly somewhat based on Tolstoy himself, tries to resolve his religious views by using logic and reason. Yet, every conclusion he comes to logically he finds fault in and cannot hold to. Yet, through the words of a peasant an inward revelation occurs, and no amount of reasoning can dissuade him from the conclusion that was revealed to him.

  2. I think we are saying the same thing. If something is intentionally confusing, it is a contest in understanding because it requires intrepretative awareness on the part of the reader/hearer. This is why Jesus constantly says, “let he who has ears, let him hear.”

    However,I don’t think the Gospels are intentionally confusing. The authors meant for them to be unsubtle propaganda, yet historical distance has rendered them difficult to understand today, for sure. However, the version of Jesus in Mark portrays Jesus as one who delivers the message of the Kingdon of God in parables in order to be confusing. Jesus seems to want some people to understand but not others.

    This sermon (which I linked to) caused some controversey at our church and among our friends. When I visited California last month, I sat in on one of Alison’s classes, and her seminary professor was covering this section of Mark. Her reading was similar to yours: the mystery of the Kingdom of God is a contest of understanding, but a revelation of God’s kingdom can only come through a revelation from God alone.

    I’m not sure the text says that directly, and even though I believe it’s true (no amount of intellectual understanding can lead to a knowledge of Christ), I sometimes wonder if that reading is a pious one designed to quell our fears.

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